Literary Heartthrobs7 min read

A centuries-old tradition of writers as sex symbols in China – Pamela Hunt

If you were so inclined to follow the Weibo account of Feng Tang, a Beijing-based writer, you might notice a reccuring meme. A fan – almost always a young, attractive female – will post a picture of herself holding a copy of one or more of Feng Tang’s works. She will strike an appealing pose, maybe add a few hearts or kissing emojis, or even wish the author a happy Valentine’s Day and refer to him as a “dream boy.” Feng then reposts the message on his own Weibo page, with a suggestive phrase such as “we are really enjoying ourselves tonight.”

There is something intriguing about this trend, not least because it is centered around an author and businessman in his late forties whose image does not quite match those of the singers, film stars or models who we might more readily expect to attract this kind of adulation. It reveals something of the great changes that Chinese culture and society continue to undergo, and is a sign of the transforming literary market which has created a new role for the author, not just as intellectual but as celebrity and enthusiastic self-promoter. New technologies – smart phones, social media and messaging apps – have precipitated new literary relationships, allowing for a new proximity between reader and writer. From the perspective of gender in China, it is also a reflection of relaxing attitudes towards sex, love and gender roles.

Feng and his fans are following a longstanding relationship in China between masculinity, writing and romance

There is much about Feng’s particular literary brand that encourages this kind of interaction. Born Zhang Haipeng in 1971, Feng is known for the racy nature of his writing. His Beijing Trilogy, a riotous set of semi-autobiographical novels covering the coming of age of a young man in 1990s Beijing, earned Feng a cult following as much for his frank detailing of protagonist Qiu Shui’s sexual awakening as for his nostalgic rendering of the capital. His popularity only grew with his publication in 2011 of Oneness, a novel that – its setting in a Tang Dynasty monastery notwithstanding – was so sexually explicit that it could not be published on the mainland at all, but became a ubiquitous presence on Hong Kong and Taiwan bestseller lists.

His cult following swelled to infamy with his new Chinese translation of Rabindranath Tagore’s collection Stray Birds in 2015. Lines such as “The world unzipped his pants in front of his lover” were deemed by his publisher to be straying too far from the original (the normal translation is “The world takes off its mask of vastness for its lover”) and Feng’s version was quickly pulled from PRC bookshelves. Perhaps the best indication of Feng’s self-imaging as a literary lothario comes from his frequent admiring references to Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, DH Lawrence – a set of authors whose oeuvres are built around a subversive sexuality.

Neither Feng’s social media interactions nor his tendency to equate literary production with bohemian, permissive behavior are new phenomena. Nor is this a Chinese author simply emulating the sexual swagger of earlier Western forebears. Rather, Feng and his fans are following a longstanding relationship in China between masculinity, writing and romance.

Key here is the concept of wén (文), cultural attainment, a term which – alongside its brother (武), martial valor – has for centuries been considered the ultimate marker of true manhood in China. Indeed, the cerebral quality of wen has for the most part been considered a more important attribute for “real” men than the physical toughness of wu. It is particularly vital in the cultural archetype of the cáizǐ (才子), or talented scholar, who can be traced back to at least 94 BC. The caizi (always male) can be found in scholar-beauty romances – formulaic tales in which a talented scholar eventually wins over a beautiful maiden thanks to his ability to write.

In such stories, women often fall in love with the caizi purely because of his poetry, before they have seen their lover in the flesh. Centuries of stories, plays and operas have centered around the idea of the highly attractive (and often highly sexed) scholar, from the 13th century classic The Romance of the Western Chamber to the 17th century erotic comedy The Carnal Prayer Mat to Jia Pingwa’s sensational (and sometimes banned) 1993 novel Ruined Capital.

In sending selfies to Feng Tang’s Weibo with copies of his books in the frame, Feng’s fans – whether consciously or not – are reenacting a centuries-old idea of a scholar who is admired and lusted after by beautiful women because of his literary achievements. Within his writing, Feng repeatedly engages with this tradition: Qiu Shui, the hero of his Beijing Trilogy, is rendered irresistible to various girls across the city because of his poetry. And while the connection between writing and a virile machismo recalls Feng’s literary heroes from the West, he is at pains to show that this is also a homegrown phenomenon. For every reference in his novels or essays to Miller, Roth or Lawrence, there is a comment on erotic Tang Dynasty literature, or a celebration of writer Li Yu (1611-1680), who spent his life, in Feng Tang’s pithy summary, “eating, drinking and whoring.”

Authors in China still cling to a traditional, regressive understanding of gender

On his Weibo page, Feng continues to build his image as a postsocialist caizi, using a gallery of women posing with his works. Photographs also abound of Feng’s calligraphy, as do essays and blog posts about his appreciation of jade, or his enjoyment of Chinese tea and its accoutrements. These are all signals that Feng is a man laden with that masculine, sensitive, attractive quality of wen. He is by no means the only contemporary Chinese author to do so – once you notice the tendency to equate literary achievement with manly appeal, it becomes evident across the cultural scene. In this way, authors in China – as in the West – such as Feng who claim to personify audacity and innovation still cling to a traditional, regressive understanding of gender.

In 2017, a few years after this meme began, Feng found himself at the center of a different kind of discussion when he published the article ‘How to Avoid Becoming a Creepy Middle-Aged Dude’ (or to use the literal terms, a “greasy” and “vulgar” man). His directives attracted the derision of netizens, who immediately accused Feng of being a creep himself. Subsequent discussion of his work and public persona have led to Feng becoming the latest celebrity to be diagnosed with “straight male cancer” – an internet-born neologism used to refer to the regressive, heteronormative behavior of unenlightened men that has gained currency as the Me Too movement builds momentum in China.

Although there have been no #metoo style allegations about him, Feng’s ostentatious self-promotion has been called into question. At the same time, other women continue to participate in his self-styling by posting their selfies with his novels. Notions of masculinity in China are undeniably changing and proliferating at a dazzling pace, fuelled by shifting ideologies, global cultural exchanges and a developing economy. But Feng Tang’s Weibo page reminds us of the tenacity of certain gender ideals, and the flexible way in which they can adapt to modern times. ∎

This essay is adapted from a chapter in the newly published volume The Cosmopolitan Dream: Transnational Chinese Masculinities in a Global Age, edited by Derek Hird and Geng Song.